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2014 columns, Young Adult literature

YA is the New Black

by Danielle Binks , July 1, 20141 Comment

Orange is the new YA

Back in 2012, Daniel Radcliffe hosted Saturday Night Live (SNL) and began his opening monologue thusly: ‘To the children who love Harry Potter, I want to say your enthusiasm was the real magic. I so enjoyed being on the journey with you. And to the adults who bought the Harry Potter books and devoured them, I just want to say… those books were for children. You were reading children’s books!’ And it was funny, because it was true. A whole slew of adult readers who perhaps hadn’t picked up a children’s book since they themselves were children, read J.K. Rowling’s series with as much enthusiasm as the young readership it was intended for.  Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series drew a similarly voracious adult fanbase.

I had begun to hope that readership hang-ups had fallen away – that it no longer mattered what age we were, because we all knew we can read any books regardless of which categories are prescribed for our age-bracket.

But apparently those of us who do read and enjoy youth literature should be ‘embarrassed’. At least that’s what Ruth Graham said in her recent clickbait article for Slate, ‘Against YA’. She warns, ‘Read whatever you want. But you should feel embarrassed when what you’re reading was written for children.’ She also claims that adults who ‘are substituting maudlin teen dramas for the complexity of great adult literature… are missing something.’

Graham’s article isn’t objectionable solely because she hasn’t even read a young adult book since she was a young adult in the 1990s (and no, her reading of The Fault in Our Stars doesn’t count. She approached Green’s book as a token foray into YA for the purposes of the article, and seemed determined to hate it from the get-go). Nor is the problem that Graham knows so little about YA that she doesn’t realise that calling it a ‘genre’ reveals her ignorance (YA is a readership, made up of an infinite number of genres).

There are a million other reasons why Ruth Graham’s piece is reprehensible, insulting and mean-spirited, but the likes of James Roy and The Washington Post have called her out on it far better than I ever could.

But you know, I’m not as mad about this anymore as I thought I’d be, and a lot of that has to do with Orange Is the New Black. Yes, the American comedy-drama series created by Jenji Kohan and based on Piper Kerman’s memoir, Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison.

Already praised as a groundbreaking TV show for its almost entirely all-female cast, and a greater display of racial diversity than anything else on the box at the moment, Orange Is the New Black (OITNB) is also breaking down readership barriers.

Books are a big part of the show, particularly because there’s not much to do while serving lengthy prison sentences except read. Many crucial scenes play out in the prison library, where a number of characters work in the stacks. The show’s characters make references to books with admirable frequency – whether it’s protagonist Piper giving away huge Atonement spoilers, or Taystee revealing her love for Jamie Fraser from Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander. There’s even a Tumblr dedicated to ‘Books of Orange is the New Black.’

But perhaps my favourite bookish aspect of OITNB is that the inmates frequently read young adult literature too. Galina ‘Red’ Reznikov has read Freshman Year & Other Unnatural Disasters by Meredith Zeitlin, as well as We Are the Goldens by Dana Reinhardt. Taystee warns a fellow inmate, ‘Don’t be fuckin’ with Harry Potter,’ as she reclaims a copy of The Goblet of Fire (She then hands over a copy of Ulysses, saying, ‘Everyone says it’s so genius, but I call it bullshit.’) Vee Parker offers The Fault in Our Stars to an inmate dying of cancer, with the mixed caveat/recommendation ‘This sick fuck is writing about kids with cancer.’

YA author Dana Reinhardt was thrilled to see her book appear on the show she’s such a fan of, ‘Seeing Red, the grand dame of Litchfield, reading my book was an absolute thrill, particularly as that moment arrived on our screens just as the debate blew up about whether adults should be embarrassed to read YA literature. Clearly Red is not embarrassed. Nor are the many other OITNB characters shown with YA novels in their hands.’

Ruth Graham may have dire warnings for adult readers of YA, but a repudiation to her argument is captured in the wise words of C.S. Lewis: ‘A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.’ The truth of this, and proof of the lasting value of contemporary young adult writing, is evident in the reading habits of OITNB’s characters.

Danielle Binks is a Melbourne-based blogger, editor and aspiring writer of young adult fiction.

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One thought on “YA is the New Black

  1. I must confess I still have a weakness for school stories (which basically describes Harry Potter – school story with magic!) and it’s really the only genre that doesn’t have a grown up equivalent.

    I can’t see the issue with adults reading YA because hello, READING. And people who read one thing start to look for other things they might like and those things might not be YA novels. They might not be ‘literature’ but they’re reading books and thinking about what they read and reading is good.

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